If you have a dig about on some Clash fanblogs, you can find illicit, well-zoomed-in fan photos of a man painting on a large canvas in various spots around London. That man in Paul Simonon, Clash bassist turned fine artist and motorbike enthusiast. Almost entirely self-taught, Paul picked up his draughtsmanship skills by spending hours at the British Museum with a pencil and sketchpad and taking canvases out and about London to capture the ever-changing city.
He wanted to be an artist from a young age, but put it off until the heyday of The Clash was fizzling out, apart from one time when he painted all their amps bright pink to stop people nicking them. His paintings are his way of digesting London, and the result of his humble desire to just get better at painting and drawing. We spoke on the phone after a long day of painting in his west London studio, here is the somewhat legendary Paul Simonon.
So you did actually have a brief stint art school didn’t you?
Yeah I always wanted to go to art college. Unfortunately, because I went to school in west London where the teachers would come in and only do two weeks so they could say on their CV that they taught in a “tough London school," we didn’t really have the consistency of teachers so we didn’t stand a chance in achieving qualifications to go on further. But fortunately I got a scholarship to go to a college in Notting Hill gate, Byam Shaw. It was fine there, but they had a different opinion of what I should do compared to what I actually wanted to do, so I suppose I faded away from art college and in hindsight I guess I eventually found my own way. I would have got more out of just going to the British Museum or V&A and drawing there which is what I did in later years. I would have been better off doing that than go to art college.
Some people go to art school not knowing what they are going to do. I knew I was going to paint pictures, and I knew to paint pictures I would need to understand structure and perspective and learning how to look, and that’s why drawing was important and that’s why drawing things at the British Museum was important. Just to understand structure.
"Some people go to art school not knowing what they are going to do. I knew I was going to paint pictures, and I knew to paint pictures I would need to understand structure and perspective and learning how to look."Paul Simonon
I heard you used to paint the band’s amps?
At the beginning of The Clash I suggested we should paint our amps neon pink. First of all I thought pink was a pretty rock ’n’ roll colour. Even Elvis Presley wore a bright pink suit. So I painted all our equipment neon pink, partly because if someone nicked it we’d know it was ours, and also no one would go near it because in those days – I’m talking 1970s – everyone thought that if it was painted pink it must be gay or something, which is ridiculous really. I thought they looked really good. Pink’s a great colour! In fact Matisse said that every painting should have a little bit of pink in it.
Did you go and see the Matisse Cut Outs show at the Tate? Did you see that photo of the room he had and him painting the walls of it with a paintbrush tied to a really long stick?
I know! I loved it. I absolutely loved it. I’ve actually got a paintbrush that’s a bit like that but not quite as long. It’s quite useful because I did some paintings by the Thames and the canvas was about five x seven foot and to actually see and paint at the same time you need something quite long because if you get too close to the canvas you can’t see what you’re painting.
Do you mean your London landscape paintings? Were they all painted from life?
Everyone’s got their own way, but for me I need to be in front of the scenario whether it’s a still life or nude or landscape.If I work from a photograph it tends to make the work quite flat, and the other thing is – especially by the Thames, or outside in general, I mean I’ve done paintings of the gasworks in Ladbroke Grove and stuff – if you’re there all day the sky and light changes and if you just take a photograph you’ll just catch the one moment. But if you’re there all day things happen, and something can happen for an odd few minutes and all you can do is do your best to get it down. If you take a photo you wouldn’t have seen that. Also you experience the place too by being there, in all weathers.
"I was fortunate because I had a few good locations where I could set up the camps, because there’s nowhere I can set up a five by seven foot canvas in the street, especially if it’s really windy and you find out that you’ve suddenly got an enormous kite on your hands."Paul Simonon
Quite nice to have a snapshot of a longer period of time.
Yeah. I was fortunate because I had a few good locations where I could set up camp, because there’s nowhere I can set up with a five by seven foot canvas in the street, especially if it’s really windy and you find out that you’ve suddenly got an enormous kite on your hands.
I never thought about that!
I was fortunate though that I was able to rope up my canvas so it wouldn’t blow away. But you know, you learn all these things as you go along. You learn not to bring a flask or any drink or food. Because if you need to go to the loo, you can’t leave all your stuff there because when you get back it won’t be there, it’ll be gone. This is what you learn when you’re standing out in all weathers! Well, after a while it’s not too bad because oil and water don’t mix but after a while the canvas gets so sodden that it’s quite hard to apply the paint after a while.
"There’s no rhyme or reason to it, some come out quickly, others are more of a struggle. Not in a technical sense, but I try and hope that each one has some sort of magic to it to work for me."Paul Simonon
I was reading an interview with you on NOWNESS and you mentioned that you sometimes used to smash your paintings up when you got frustrated – is that true?
I’ve got a bass guitar that I smashed up on stage, and in some ways that’s like an artwork in itself. Put it this way, it looks more interesting smashed up than it does as being one piece. Sometimes out of destruction can come something quite interesting. Even though that wasn’t the intention at the time. In some ways because it’s an emotion and you’ve lost control at that point, sometimes what comes out can be quite positive.
The paintings in your recent show are actually photo-real some of them, super detailed, it must take a long time to complete each one.
It depends, sometimes they can happen quite quickly and sometimes they can feel a bit laboured. So I don’t really have too much control over the picture itself, because it dictates how it’s going to be. There’s one I did that was done in like three days, whereas another one took about three weeks to complete, so it depends. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, some come out quickly, others are more of a struggle. Not in a technical sense, but I try and hope that each one has some sort of magic to it to work for me. I could work on one painting for the rest of my life really, but the thing is I like to sort of keep the freshness of the subject and the painting. If you work too long on something it can become a bit laboured, it depends on the process but generally I like to let the marks dictate when it’s done.
"I’ve got a bass guitar that I smashed up on stage, and in some ways that’s like an artwork in itself. Put it this way, it looks more interesting smashed up than it does as being one piece."Paul Simonon
I saw pictures of the private view of the show, It seemed there were loads of other artists and musicians and creative people there. Do you chat to other artists about making work and talk to them about what they do?
Sometimes, I mean there were all sorts of people there. There were people there that fixed my bike up when it goes wrong, there was a whole mix of people. There were musicians and artists and actors, all types from all walks of life, but generally mostly from a creative background. But I guess, they are the sort of people I hang out with. But then as I said the guys from Metropolis who fix my bike came along, and the fellas from the flower market came along as well. It was a nice mix.
How many motorbikes have you got now?
I’ve only got one! I’d like more! They’re very expensive. And you have to insure them as well. What I’d really like is a Vincent Black Shadow but they cost over 30,000 quid and there’s no way I’m going to spend that on a motorcycle. It’s almost like a sculpture in itself. Anyway, I’ve got my Triumph Bonneville and that’s fine.
Art + Music
This month we will be looking at the infinite, somewhat holy connection between art and music in all its different genres. Spanning an enormous amount of ways music and art come together, this feature will take a closer look at stage design, record sleeves, music videos, zines, rock star painters, band merchandise, music at fashion shows and much, much more. Now put your hands together for Art + Music.